The tipping point that some saw in the massacre in Houla isn’t likely to cause a new Western drive for more direct intervention in Syria. In Western capitals, the fear is that Syria will plunge into bloodier chaos. The hope is Russia might finally feel compelled to stop it.
The massacre in Houla, where 108 civilians were slaughtered, 49 of them children, has amplified those calls. In the United States, Republican challenger Mitt Romney, attacked Barack Obama for allowing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to “slaughter 10,000 individuals” and called for a plan to arm Syria’s opposition forces.
It’s not surprising there’s an urge to act. Canada, and more than a dozen other countries, booted out Syrian diplomats Tuesday to send a message of disgust. But there are major constraints. Direct military intervention by war-weary U.S. or NATO forces has been essentially ruled out. And in Ottawa, as in many other capitals, the prospect of arming the opposition raises fear of throwing fuel on a fire.
The Harper government has pointed the finger of blame for Houla directly at the Assad regime. But behind the scenes, Canadian officials are putting the emphasis on diplomacy with Russia and express concerns that actions like arming rebels could backfire.
There’s increasing concern about what the Syrian rebels are becoming. The Free Syrian Army and the Syrian Liberation Army, two of the largest factions fighting the Assad regime, play down reports that jihadists are infiltrating rebel groups or are linking up with them.
But even if jihadists don’t dominate now, government officials are concerned about the trend: They have seen an increase of extremists. The composition of the opposition – once made up of peaceful protesters – is getting worse, Canadian officials fear. The chaos and violence are opportunities for them to gain ground.
That has increased reluctance to arm the Syrian rebels – there’s little assurance it won’t be arming extremists. The United States is “very, very reluctant” to do it because they “quite rightly are worried about where those weapons might end up,” one official said.
It could also intensify the bloodbath. The Assad regime still has a lot of military equipment it has not unleashed, probably because it would intensify global condemnation. Ottawa fears that arming rebels could spark Mr. al-Assad to pull out the heavy artillery, arguing that he faces war against foreign-armed forces.
And there is still the burning concern abut the conflict spreading. Ottawa has always feared that Syria’s sectarian and ethnic rivalries could draw in groups outside its borders. There’s already been violence in Lebanon that mirrors the sectarian lines drawn in Syria. There are worries it could spread to Jordan and especially Iraq.
All that means diplomacy remains the only real option, even if trying to squeeze the Assad regime has seemed fruitless so far. Canada has imposed sanctions, often in concert with other Western nations, but they can’t really get much tougher. If sanctions are going to have more impact, it will take the approval of the UN Security Council. But Russia and China have blocked that.
Russia, a key Syrian ally, has shown little sign, even after Houla, of abandoning Mr. al-Assad. But the West continues to hope that Russia will see Syria is passing a tipping point to civil war and chaos. Ottawa and other powers want Russia to decide it is in its own interest to use its influence in Damascus to help ease out Mr. al-Assad and organize a transition to another, stable leader. Canadian officials say they are pressing that message with the Russians, at high levels, repeatedly and in concert with other countries.
For now, the only tipping point in sight is the moment at which Russia decides the cost of chaos in Syria outweighs the value of its ally.